On the road to Bikaner and Jaisalmer you can readily note the transition into desert terrain. By the time you get to Jaisalmer the landscape is extremely dry and dusty. However, it isn’t altogether hotter than prior parts of India, just less humid. That being said the nights get chillier.
We arrived in Jaisalmer in the mid-afternoon. The hotel was rather nice in this town and had a nice little pool in front so most of us had a swim before heading out to dinner.
Jaisalmer is known as the “Golden City” because the fort and pretty much all of the buildings in the city are built from yellow sandstone. At night in particular, the yellow sandstone gives the city a golden hue, especially with the artificial illumination. Here’s a photo of the fort at night:
Jaisalmer has the distinction of being the second oldest fort in Rajasthan but the oldest and largest living fort in the world–some 3000 people live within its walls.
The fort and city were founded in 1156 by the Rajput ruler Jaisal. Subsequent rulers fortified the impressive walls and guard towers. Jain merchants in particular paid for most of the fortifications. Observants of the Jain religion practice an extreme form of non-violence yet paradoxically for the time, they also managed to be extremely wealthy merchants. As a result, they flocked to rulers of other faiths who could provide them with protection, and accordingly paid for the vast majority of the fortifications. The rulers of the Rajput clan were particularly effective in defending the city. While most of India fell to Mughal invaders at some point in its history, the rulers of the Rajput clan maintained control over the city up until India’s independence in 1947 by establishing cordial relations with the Mughals. This is not to say that the Rajput clan was particularly pacifist, for the first 500 or so years of their rule they relied on looting neighbours until their strategic position between India and Central Asia allowed them to prosper through commerce starting in the 16th century.
That night we ended up at a restaurant called Jaisal Italy which as you would guess, supposedly specializes in Italian food on top of the usual Indian staples. The Italian food was unfortunately rather lousy but you can’t beat the ambiance. The place is literally on the outer walls of the fort and has an amazing view of the fort. I apologize for the crappy photos, the lighting was extremely limited:
Picture of one of the very nice owners:
I woke up a little bit earlier than the rest of the group to explore the fort before it got too crowded. Here’s a shot of the fort from the parts of the city outside the fort. Our hotel was a 10-15 minute walk from the gates to the city even though the fort looks quite distant. The entire city is very walkable; you could probably go from the hotel and all around the periphery of fort in about an hour.
A view of the fort from just outside one of the outer walls:
A balcony just past one of the inner walls to the fort:
The final walkway just beyond the final gate into the fort:
A word of caution about Jaisalmer, and much of India really. A lot of it is infested with bats. They are pretty cute to look at in that position, but a lot of damp dark buildings in India have the unfortunately pungent odour of bat feces. It’s not actually pungent the first time you smell it, but by this point I cannot stand the smell.
The main sight inside the fort is the fort palace where the rulers resided. The entrance fee works out to about $10 CDN but includes a good audio tour. Because I left the hotel so early (and because I couldn’t find a place to serve me breakfast for the life of me), I was one of the first people in the palace that day. As such, I had an unusual opportunity to take photos of the palace without people around to ruin the shot. Some shots of the exterior and interior of the palace:
The obligatory selfie. Note the incredibly low ceilings, which are funny given that one of the rulers in this palace was over 2 metres tall. I cannot imagine that it was easy to navigate these narrow and low passage ways:
Views from the area of the palace reserved for the noble women of the palace:
As I learned on the audio tour, the palace and fort as a whole are being severely damaged every day. The source of the damage: water. Given that this fort was built in the desert, the architects took great care to design the features of the palace to capture and preserve every drop of water. It is said that 7 year stretches without rain would not be unusual for the city. With the modern water systems, the fort simply cannot handle the excess water.
After visiting the palace I headed to a nearby place for some breakfast. Getting breakfast in the town was a hilarious challenge. I started first thing in the morning by going to a place called Chandan Shree that was reputed to have a terrific Indian breakfast. When I arrived, one of the servers told me pretty explicitly that breakfast would not be served until 30 minutes later. So I left, visited the fort palace and then returned. I was then directed upstairs by another server who wouldn’t let me go all the way to the top level, but insisted that I stay in the second level. After waiting a few minutes in the abandoned restaurant, I made further enquiries downstairs only to be told that the restaurant does not in fact serve breakfast. I then left the joint and went back into the fort to look for a restaurant. I attended no less than three restaurants openly advertising breakfast items on their signs outside only to be told that they don’t serve breakfast. I finally found a rooftop restaurant in a hotel that would serve me breakfast. This is NOT the first time that this sort of bizarre lack of service and puzzling misinformation has occurred in India. However, I can’t complain, the view from my table was very nice and I had the entire floor to myself.
After breakfast I attended a cluster of Jain temples in the heart of the fort city. Jainism stems back from the 6th century B.C. and was founded by a contemporary of Buddha. The two religions are remarkably similar. Both believe that liberation from the constraints of the body can be attained through the shedding of all karma. Jains are supposed to maintain a bare minimum of possessions, and exercise extreme non-violence to the point that they are not supposed to kill anything. Many take great care to sweep the ground in front of them to prevent the accidental killing of a living creature. Jain monks often wear little or no clothing and it is not unusual to see both lay persons and monks wearing cloths in front of their mouths and noses in the temples to prevent the accidental inhalation of insects. Given that only .4% of the Indian population practices Jainism, their temples are quite prevalent. There are however two contradictions that I can’t wrap my head around. First, Jain temples are by far the most intricate and ornate religious structures that I have ever visited. Second, given their supposed commitment to austerity, their success as merchants and their extravagant homes clearly contradict this. Jain temples are very impressive, but because they are so ornate they ironically all become very difficult to distinguish from one another.
Some practical points, when you go into Jain temples you are of course not allowed to wear shoes. More importantly, you’re also not allowed to wear any leather, so make sure to leave any leather items behind such as belts and watch straps or you’ll be forced to leave them outside.
Some photos of the temples:
After visiting the temples, I engaged in the non-austere practice of getting my shoes shinned because the dust of Jaisalmer and killer wear and tear during the last three weeks had taken a serious toll on my shoes. To be fair, the fellow below did follow me for the better part of the day to hire him for his services. Note, when you get your shoes shinned in India they prefer to do it with the shoes off. Doesn’t seem like the most practical approach in terms of the buffing (personal experience) but they get the job done for a few bucks.
Just outside of where I was getting my shoes shinned, I noticed a government licensed bhang shop. I did not previously know this about India, but in certain cities the sale of marijuana edibles is perfectly legal. My Lonely Planet guide says that bhang is an edible mixture of the “dried leaves and flowering shoots of the marijuana plant.” It is sold in the form of bhang lassies (yogurt drinks) or cookies. The store owners will tell you that bhang cookies purchased in a government licensed shop are legal anywhere in India, but my Lonely Planet guide says that any drug possession outside of a city where bhang is legally sold is punishable by a minimum of 10 years in jail so best not to risk it.
I met up with the rest of the group in the early afternoon to depart for our camel safari. We drove about 45 minutes out of Jaisalmer to meet up with our camels. The camel ride was then about 1.5 hours to our campsite. If you’ve never been on a camel before, it’s really not at all comfortable, but even less so how they do it in India using a horse-type saddle (Egyptians ride cross-legged). As such, heed my advice and book a SHORT camel ride.
Another selfie, this time wearing a goofy hat:
My camel taking a nap during a break:
When we arrived at our campsite, the cook and our guide set up their bedding near bushes at the bottom of the sand dunes. We western geniuses decided that sleeping on the very tops of the sand dunes was the best idea. Here’s my sleeping site for the night:
Before sundown and during dinner we were entertained by some musicians who belted out some terrific tunes:
I managed to record a little bit of their music. Here is a portion of one of their songs:
Once the sun went down, we did some experimentation with long exposure photography. The laser pointer was a nice touch on some of the shots:
Sleeping on top of the sand dunes was a great idea, for a while. Yes, it was absolutely brilliant to wake-up at 2:00 am to see the beautiful sky covered in stars, unimpeded by the normal light pollution. But then around 4:00 am, the temperature drops to 8 degrees, and the wind picks up, somehow making the sand damp and sticky in the process. Let’s just say that we all woke up chilly and covered in a layer of sticky sand.
After a light breakfast, we headed back to Jaisalmer, stopping at a ghost city along the way. The story is that a nearby ruler became obsessed with a local village girl and wanted her to be sent to his palace. The villagers refused and the King threatened violence. The villagers responded by abandoning the town overnight, and ever since people have avoided the town at night because of ghost sightings.
When we returned to Jaisalmer in the morning, I set off to explore the streets of the city and the famous havelis therein (havelis are the intricately carved doorways, screens balconies and turrets of private residences). Again, these homes primarily belonged to Jain merchants–so much for austerity.
Some photos of the streets of Jaisalmer around the fort:
An ornate bell:
And this wouldn’t be India without some cows:
I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to sleep inside the oldest living fort in the world, so I ponied up $36 to rent a room for the night. I got bitten by insects that night, but it was worth it to wake up inside the fort and see it at 7:00 am as the locals had all their doors and windows open and were undergoing their morning routines. Some shots of the room and the view from its private terrace:
For dinner that night, I joined up with the group again at a place called Trip just outside of the fort walls for some kofta (cottage cheese mashed up with nuts or any number of ingredients that they dream up, with some sort of curry sauce).
I ended the night at the same place where I had breakfast the previous day. Once again I had the place to myself, but this time I took advantage of one of the stone seating areas with a view of the city:
I’ll end with a picture of an amusing sign I saw in the city: